Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.
Maybe it was because it came just five days after Christmas and everyone was broke, but my father's birthday was never a serious occasion. It was, however, always an important one. My far-flung siblings might not gather for Christmas, but they often did for his birthday.
Over the years we developed a half-joking rivalry to see who could find the silliest gift for him. They ranged from fluffy flamingo slippers with matching headdress, to a boxing kangaroo puppet, and a wind-up toy featuring Snoopy as a chef flipping a pancake—an ode to those Sundays when Dad took over the kitchen to make us breakfast. He also specialized in crispy—some might say burnt—bacon. That's still how I prefer mine.
We took a photo together each year. One shows him in our house in Iowa, surrounded by his five daughters and proudly holding the Snoopy chef toy. One of my favorites has him sporting a giant foam cheese wedge on his head (courtesy of my years living in Milwaukee). He's also holding a crock of Tullamore Dew. The imbibing of good Irish whiskey over many games of Hearts was another annual tradition. I still choose Irish over Scotch, indoctrinated by years of Dad extolling its superior qualities.
Dad grew up in the Depression, and material goods never really mattered that much to him. What did matter were experiences like viewing slapstick films with his children, particularly Laurel and Hardy movies. What did matter was figuring out how to distribute points equally in Hearts through counting cards and strategic passing, which ensured our games would last for hours.
The dish that Mom rolled out once a year for his birthday mattered, too. It was something she called shrimp curry. And while I've been to India, this bears no resemblance to anything I had there. One of the primary ingredients is Campbell's Cream of Shrimp condensed soup. That core component puts it squarely in the land of the Midwestern hot dish, circa the 1950s—a concoction that could make it into the "Gallery of Regrettable Food."
And yet I find it strangely delicious.
Apparently, the cook on the minesweeper where Dad served in the Pacific during World War II made something like this. Other than that, the shrimp curry's origins remain foggy.
Last time I made this so-called shrimp curry was for Dad's birthday, in 2012. I didn't know it would be the last one we would celebrate in the condo my parents bought in Sarasota, Florida, where they retired in 1987. A year later, a health crisis put Mom in a hospital for two weeks, prompting my parents to do what we'd tried to get them to do for years: move into assisted living. They'd both become infirm and isolated. Despite his declining vision, Dad was still driving, and I dreaded a phone call informing me that he'd hit someone; that he'd put himself in the emergency room.
That year in Sarasota, Mom supervised me as I cut up the green onions, peeled and chopped the shrimp, sautéed them in butter, and added them to a sauce made of soup, sour cream, and Madras curry powder.
We gathered at the table and passed white rice, followed by the little dishes of sambals to pile in the center—diced orange peel, walnuts, raisins, more green onions—then we ladled the pinkish sauce over it all. Mom always placed the tin of curry powder next to Dad's plate so he could add more. The combination of those sweet, salty, and bitter sambals enhanced the creamy shrimp sauce, an American facsimile of Indian korma or Thai green coconut curry. I don't remember that year's round of gifts, but there were probably some ridiculous wind-up toys and humorous books, plus a cake from Publix and cards with jokes about being old. There was a Hearts game, of course, with Irish whiskey.
Since last year was Dad's 95th birthday, we thought we would do "something important." We took him to a fancy restaurant, where we couldn't hear each other speak; where Dad's attempt to give a modest speech proved too difficult above the cacophony.
I wish I'd known it was his last one. Dad died the following April. And if I could spend just one more birthday with him, I would make him that shrimp curry he loved so much. Even though I don't have the recipe. I'm not sure I ever will.
I've got all of Mom's recipes. They were shipped to my home in New Mexico after my sister and I cleaned out our parents' condo. I've sifted through all the notecards that she meticulously created over decades, handwritten or clipped from Gourmet, from newspapers and other magazines. She was always so organized.
But there was no shrimp curry recipe. Mom says it's possible she never wrote it down. I've done some sleuthing online and found one from a Better Homes and Gardens book in the 1950s that sounds similar. She's convinced she can talk me through it.
So I guess we'll just have to wing it this year as we celebrate Dad's birthday, which is pretty much what we've all been doing ever since we took turns holding his hands and watched him take his final breath, bringing to an end a life of scholarship, a love of Laurel and Hardy, stupid birthday gifts from his children, and endless games of Hearts.
I promise I will add some extra curry powder to my plate this year, Dad. I promise that I'll chase it all down with some Irish. Just like you did.